| Cell phone as sensor
by David Pescovitz
Graduate student R.J. Honicky spent last summer in Uganda as a Berkeley-United Nations Industrial Development Organization fellow. He works with his co-adviser Eric Brewer on the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) project. (Peg Skorpinski photo)
Right now, there are hundreds of millions of cell phones in use around the world. According to UC Berkeley computer science graduate student R.J. Honicky, the ubiquity of those devices could be leveraged to help reduce pollution, fight disease, and tackle other societal scale problems with no additional effort on the part of the person carrying the phone. The key is outfitting newly manufactured cell phones with inexpensive environmental sensors.
"By their sheer numbers, cell phones provide an opportunity to gather geospatial data with much higher granularity and more penetration than previously possible," says Honicky, who is developing such a system with College of Engineering dean Richard Newton. "This is especially true in the developing world, where there's often a lack of funds for scientific research."
The cell phone-as-sensor approach weaves together two valuable approaches to data gathering. Wireless sensor networks consisting of hundreds or thousands of individual nodes have emerged as a new kind of "instrument," capable of gathering great amounts of data that can then be aggregated and analyzed. But in many locations, particularly within developing nations, the deployment of large- scale sensor networks is cost prohibitive. On the other hand, leveraging existing cell phone networks into a wireless infrastructure makes perfect sense, Honicky says.
"Cell phones have a huge economy of scale," he says. "The cost to add a sensor to a handset is marginal compared to the entire manufacturing cost of the phone."
R.J. Honicky developed an application to generate maps of cell phone signal strength on the Berkeley campus using a GPS-enabled Nextel cell phone. [Larger image]
Many mobile phones systems are also equipped with technology that tracks location, either via GPS receivers in the handsets or technology within the cellular network. The ability to identify where in the world a bit of data was found is the basis of geographic information systems (GIS), highly useful tools for collecting, organizing, mapping, and understanding data within the context of location.
"When you can visualize data with fine granularity in a spatial context, oftentimes you can clearly pinpoint problem areas and suggest good solutions," Honicky says.
In recent years, scientists have used GIS to track the endemicity of malaria, and contain river blindness, a human disease caused by a parasite and spread by blackfly bites in South America and southern Africa .
"If you can figure out where the disease is coming from, you can do targeted sprayings of larvicides and slow the spread with much less environmental impact," Honicky explains. "The phones will allow scientists to gather similar kinds of geospatial data without the expense of typical GIS development and maintenance."
Already, Honicky has demonstrated a simple proof-of-concept application for the UC Berkeley campus. As he walks around campus, his handset monitors the strength of the wireless signal at its current location and transmits that data to a central server. The information is then displayed graphically as a map of cell phone signal strength across the campus.
Meanwhile, electrical engineering and computer sciences professor Richard White, mechanical engineering department chair Albert Pisano, graduate student Jonathan Rheaume, and David Walther, a research engineer with the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Sensor Center , are launching an effort to develop a carbon monoxide sensor for cell phones. Eventually, a combination cell phone/CO detector could enable environmental scientists to monitor and track pollution across densely populated urban centers.
Once Honicky and Newton determine if their system will scale to millions of users, the next step is to convince manufacturers to participate. Honicky hopes that incentive will come from the opportunity to do well by doing good. And once the potential privacy concerns about tracking the location of users are worked out, he's convinced that the public will be eager to join in.
"I think the biggest driver for individuals is that they get to participate in a social cause," he says. "That's especially true if they know that just by carrying around cell phones they could, for example, potentially help scientists understand and hopefully reduce pollution around their homes."
R.J. Honicky's home page
A. Richard Newton's home page
Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center (BSAC)
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